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Authorship and the Director of Photography

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A Case Study of Gregg Toland and Citizen Kane by PHILIP COWAN, Manchester Metropolitan University, University of South Wales


The artistic contribution of Directors of Photography to the films that they shoot, in narrative mainstream cinema, have been historically ignored in favour of the director-centred auteur theory. In order to address this imbalance a new approach to attributing authorship in film needs to be implemented, which acknowledges co-authorship in collaborative film-making. By taking established auteur methodologies The author, himself a practicing Director of Photography, analyses the work of Gregg Toland, who has long been recognised for his technical contribution to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), but only by analysing his previous work can one actually realise the depth of his influence on the visualisation of Kane.


Film, cinematography, authorship, Gregg Toland, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles

Gregg Toland and the cinematographer’s plight

Gregg Wesley Toland, born in 1904, became one of the most respected Directors of Photography in Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s. He started his career as an assistant to cinematographer George Barnes, who would later shoot Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940). By 1931 Toland had graduated to cinematographer at Goldwyn Studios. Throughout the 30s he developed his own style of shooting, on films including Les Miserables (Boleslawski, 1935), Mad Love (Freund, 1935), The Road to Glory, (Hawks, 1936), Dead End (Wyler, 1937), Wuthering Heights (Wyler, 1939), The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, 1940), and The Long Voyage Home (Ford, 1940). In 1941 he shot the film that many film critics and theorists consistently regard as the best American film ever made, Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941). The film has topped every Sight and Sound Critics’ poll of Best Film since 1962.
Toland died in 1948, aged just forty-four. His influence on visual narrative has been almost completely over-looked. He is chiefly mentioned only in connection with the auteur directors of the 30s and 40s. His artistry is almost always credited to others, and his historical role seems to have been consigned to that of a technical innovator. This treatment of Toland at the hands of historians, critics and academics illustrates the wider misrepresentation of the great cinematographers of the past, and present. Often defined as technicians rather than artists, as artisans rather than authors. The wide-spread acceptance of classic auteur theory, which credits the director with sole authorship of a film, championed and developed by Truffaut (1954), Bazin (1957), Cameron (1962), Sarris (1962) and Wollen (1969), is largely responsible for the neglect of many innovative and creative careers. Perkins was one of the first to challenge the single-author idea, and discuss the idea of collaboration: ‘Unless one has watched the planning and making of a picture, it is impossible to know precisely who contributed each idea or effect to the finished movie.’ (Perkins, 1972: 68). Petrie argued for a ‘radical rethink’ of the auteur theory with the ‘consideration of the cinema as a cooperative art...’ (Petrie, 1973: 111). He particularly points to the significance of the contribution of the cinematographer. Koszarski also criticised the over-simplification of ideas of authorship and attributing artistry: ‘It is simply preposterous that there is not a sentence on the art of Lee Garmes or Gregg Toland, not any proper critical evaluation.’ (Koszarski, 1972, p.136) This is still true forty years later. Despite these various reservations the director as single-author has remained the bedrock of mainstream film theory.

Citizen Toland and the myth of Orson Welles
Many of the creative innovations in Citizen Kane that have been written about and subsequently attributed to Welles, have their origins in the development of the work of Toland. Amid the praise heaped on Welles it cannot be overstated enough that Kane was his first film, and he relied heavily on his cameraman. Debates have been waged over the authorship of the script of Kane, initiated by Kael’s essay Raising Kane (1971), but few discussions have been had about the visual style of the film. The default position of most critics and theorist is summed up by Laura Mulvey in her 1992 discussion of the film in BFI Film Classics: Citizen Kane, in which she seems to think any debates about authorship with regard to the script are unimportant, as the film is the final article, and that is Welles’ product:
... the concept and camera strategy used in the opening shots is undoubtedly in keeping with Welles’s aesthetic interests and expressive of the style he was evolving for his first foray into cinema. (Mulvey, 1992: 11)
This, in itself, demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of the cinematographer’s contribution to the film. The aesthetic that the film adheres to is Toland’s, developed over eleven years of shooting films. This is what I will establish, not only in order to give Toland the artistic credit that he deserves, but highlight by example how cinematographers have been historically ignored, and authorship often mistakenly attributed. Toland is far too often referred to as a “technician” who enabled Welles to realise his own vision, whereas he should be recognised as a co-author of the film.

Kane’s aesthetic

Kane is often cited for its use of staging in depth, low camera angles, ceilinged sets, and long
takes of continuous action. All of these techniques are evident in Toland’s earlier work.

Kane’s aesthetic

Kane is often cited for its use of staging in depth, low camera angles, ceilinged sets, and long takes of continuous action. All of these techniques are evident in Toland’s earlier work.

The exploitation of depth in Kane, can be traced along a developmental course throughout Toland’s work, through Mad Love (Freund, 1935) (fig. 1), and These Three (William Wyler, 1936), where the children discuss their tutors (fig. 2), to the opening shot from The Long Voyage Home (Ford, 1940) (fig. 3), and countless other examples. In this context the photography in Citizen Kane (fig. 4) is consistent with Toland’s style. This simple selection also shows the consistency of Toland’s work across his collaborations with a number of directors, including those that are generally credited with exploiting this technique in the late 30s and early 40s; Wyler, Ford and Welles. Certainly Kane develops the idea of staging in depth to an extreme. This is partly due to the technical advancement of greater depths of field, often called “deep-focus”, which clearly Toland exploited to develop his own aesthetic interests, which included a desire to tell a story more effectively

Staging in dept cont.

The frame tells a story, by the significance of the foreground glass and medicine bottle (Figure 5)

Bazin gives a detailed analysis of the shot (fig. 5) conveying Susan’s (Dorothy Comingore) attempted suicide (1972: 77-80).

The frame tells a story, by the significance of the foreground glass and medicine bottle, Susan on the bed in the mid-ground, and Kane trying to enter the room in the background.

We can actually trace the genesis of this shot from Mad Love where the placement of the bottle in the foreground emphasises the fact that Gogol’s Housekeeper, Françoise (May Beatty) is drunk (fig. 6).

Also the glass in the foreground in The Long Voyage Home is a prelude to Olson (John Wayne) being drugged (fig. 7).

Although in both these cases the foreground object is out of focus, the compositional, and storytelling ideas are the same. Three different directors, the same cinematographer. It is easy to assume that Toland initiated this classic shot.

Low Camera Angle

The use of low camera positions can create dynamic compositions. Again Kane is noted for its use of low angle shots, especially the use of raised floors to get the camera at floor level. We can also see many examples of the floor level camera in Toland’s pre-Kane work, for example, Les Misérables (fig. 8), Wuthering Heights (fig. 9), and an example from Citizen Kane (fig. 10). Toland often uses a low angle, looking up at the characters, to give them more importance and power at particular moments in the narrative, for example when Valjean (Fredric March) looks at the candlestick that the Bishop gave him in Les Misérables, it reminds him of his moral obligations (fig. 8).


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